FDA to Test Imported Additives for Melamine

By Marc Kaufman and Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Concerned that a wide variety of Chinese vegetable protein products may be contaminated with the harmful compound melamine, the Food and Drug Administration said yesterday that it will begin testing batches of six imported ingredients used in pet foods and livestock feed, as well as additives to human food.

Officials have not found the substance in food products for people but detected it in two imported ingredients widely used in pet food: wheat gluten and rice protein. The agency said that imported corn gluten, corn meal, soy protein and rice bran will also be tested. The vegetable proteins are used in bread, pizza, baby food and many vegetarian dishes.

"This is a proactive step," said David Acheson, chief medical officer of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "We will test a variety of foods and feeds because we need to know all there is to know" about the melamine contamination.

Melamine, a nitrogen-based compound used in products such as countertops, glues and fertilizers, was identified this month as the cause of fatal kidney failure in an unknown number of dogs and cats, leading to the recall of more than 100 brands of pet food.

Officials traced the melamine to two Chinese plants, which have been supplying American distributors since last summer. Agency officials said that some contaminated products, sold by pet food manufacturers as scraps, were fed to hogs in the Carolinas, New York, California and Utah, and that some of those animals tested positive for melamine. They said that a contaminated shipment of feed had been sent to a Missouri chicken farm as well.

Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said a second chemical called cyanuric acid, which is related to melamine, has also been found in samples of rice protein concentrate.

FDA officials said that they are in discussions with Chinese officials about inspecting the plants where the contaminated pet food originated, but that no agreement has been reached. Julia Ho, of the agency's Office of International Programs, said Chinese authorities also are investigating.

Steve Miller, chief executive of ChemNutra, a Las Vegas-based importer of nutritional and pharmaceutical chemicals, said he suspects that the contamination was intentional.

"We are concerned that we may have been the victim of deliberate and mercenary contamination for the purpose of making the wheat gluten we purchased appear to have a higher protein content than it did, because melamine causes a false high result on protein tests," Miller wrote in an open letter posted on ChemNutra's Web site.

Michael Payne, outreach coordinator for the Western Institute of Food Safety at the University of California at Davis's School of Veterinary Medicine, said he thinks that there is little risk of people becoming ill by eating pork from pigs that ate melamine-laced feed.

Toxicology studies on laboratory rodents have long suggested that it takes high doses of the chemical to cause health problems -- typically in the bladder and kidneys, Payne said. And the modest doses found in pet food would be diluted even further in the body of a pig that ate it.

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